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Academy Awards

And the Oscar goes to … who, us?!

Yes, we’re past the point when anything more needs to be said about the 84th Oscars, and yet I’ve seen no mention of the most wackily wonderful moment of the evening. It afforded a look inside Academy ritual, and an instance of late-blooming justice being done against considerable odds. So please indulge one last Oscar commentary.

It was around mid-show and the category about to be announced was Best Editing. Four of the five films in contention were Best Picture nominees, which is typical, and understandable: surely a picture’s putative Best-ness has a lot to do with the excellence of its various elements? So Editing would just be part of the politics, the gamesmanship, the emotional rollercoaster of the night. Hugo had taken the lead with two wins right out of the gate, Cinematography and Art Direction—would Editing further hint at an upset of frontrunner The Artist, with Martin Scorsese’s editorial right arm Thelma Schoonmaker adding a fourth Academy statuette to her mantel (she’s won for Raging Bull, 1980; The Aviator, 2004; and The Departed, 2006)? The other Best Pic contenders whose editors had been nominated were Moneyball (those wonderful boardroom schmoozes! Brad Pitt working the phones!) and The Descendants (uh, OK). The fifth slot had gone to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a much-ballyhooed Christmastime release that hadn’t exactly flopped, but neither had it inspired brushfire enthusiasm among critics or ticket-buyers. An “It’s an honor just to be nominated” entry if ever we saw one. Your seats are way in the back, guys.

Then The Girl won. And as co-editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall were making their way down the aisle, you could read the mutual WTF body language and expressions plain as day. When they got to the podium they made it explicit: we weren’t expecting this, we have prepared nothing to say, but thank you David and, er, yeah. Exit, pursued by a chuckle.

“David” was director David Fincher. At last year’s Oscar ceremony Baxter and Wall had collected the selfsame award for editing his The Social Network. Back-to-back wins are rare. That, even more than The Girl‘s overall also-ran status among 2011 films, was why they weren’t expecting to be called to the stage again on this particular night.

But they belonged there, because their editing has a lot to do with why Fincher’s movie is going to find more and more favor over the years. People will stop worrying that there was a 2009 Swedish film rendering of the Stieg Larsson bestseller because, with the exceptions of leading actors Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace, it doesn’t hold a candle to the American version. Fincher’s movie runs only a quarter-hour longer than its predecessor but encompasses much more of the material, atmosphere, and teeming gallery of characters (including the Vanger dead) in Larsson’s 600-page tome. Steven Zaillian did the adaptation, a heroic task, but it’s Fincher’s visual and aural detailing and the at-times-subliminal editing by Baxter and Wall that set it before us and make it play, laminate past and present with breathtaking translucency.

So guys, what are you cutting in 2012? —RTJ

A Night Swung Between Two Oscars

The secret of having a fine night watching the Academy Awards is having a horse in the race, and I had two: Meryl Streep, whom I couldn’t bear to see lose again, not after that performance, and Undefeated, a documentary longshot about high school football players in North Memphis,Tennessee, that didn’t stand a chance in a field that stretched from Pina to Hell and Back

Truly deeply deserving Streep

So, understandably, our house echoed with shrieks, after Undefeated’s win. You may remember the bleeping disbelief by one of its pair of young director-editors, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, Oscars in hand.

As the extraordinary Manassas Tigers’ coach Bill Courtney says, “Football doesn’t build character; football reveals character.” Undefeated reveals the almost overwhelming personal struggles of three of Courtney’s young black athletes as they move toward manhood, captured by the kind of filmmaking “luck” that comes from being there, day in day out, recording routine  moments and ones of high and sometimes almost hidden emotion.

One of these came on the filmmakers’ first day with Montiel, known as “Money,” a small, speedy offensive lineman and honors student. He took Lindsay and Martin behind his grandmother’s house where he lives, to show them his pet: a tortoise. As he picks it up, explaining gently how its hard shell protects the soft creature inside, we get the first glimpse of the heart on each side of Undefeated’s lens.

If you saw The Blind Sideand think you already know this territory — you don’t. There’s no Sandra Bullock (lord love her) facing genteel opposition as she steps in to change the life of one gifted black player. If Undefeated’s kids see college football as the only way out of their flat-lined lives in this weed-filled, scraggly patch of North Memphis, they can also see the odds as clearly as we can.

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The Seattle Cinema Scene: Noir City 2012 and Oscar Nominees in the Theaters

Noir City Seattle, a shorter travelling version of San Francisco’s Noir City festival featuring archival and restored 35mm prints of noir classics and rarities, begins its seven day run of double feature screenings at the Uptown: the first year to screen at SIFF Cinema’s new venue.

The series kicks off with Thieves’ Highway (1949), directed by Jules Dassin after his career launching one-two punch of The Naked City and Brute Force. Richard Conte is the firecracker independent trucker who takes on the crooked San Francisco produce market operator (Lee J. Cobb) who crippled his father. He’s a two-fisted idealist in the nocturnal bustle of the San Francisco docks and produce marketplace and the winding two-lane highways of California, made even more treacherous in the daylight thanks to ruthless competition launched by Cobb’s henchmen. Valentina Cortese is the tarnished urban beauty sent to fleece Conte and Dassin gives the film a working class grit and post-WWII disillusionment. It plays with the Robert Wise-directed The House on Telegraph Hill (1951), a handsome suspense melodrama about a European WWII relocation camp survivor (Valentino Cortesa) who takes the identity of a deceased friend for a new life in America, which includes a son, a San Francisco mansion, and a suitor (Richard Basehart) who may have ulterior motives.

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In shock over the Academy’s stats? Not so much.

So, after an 8-month effort of digging, cross-referencing, and prying the news out of agents and publicists that their clients are in the prestigious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Los Angeles Times released its bombshell Sunday.

Academy members are:

  • 94% white
  • 77% male
  • 54% over 60 years old

Board members, reportedly surprised by the results, reacted with variations of, “We knew it was bad but we didn’t know it was that bad.”  You might think that a quick look around the room. . . . oh, never mind.

Dig a tiny bit more and you’ll find that only 2% of the membership is under the age of 40; those in their 40s make up 11%, and 25% are in their 50s.  (I know, there’s a rogue 8% “Unknown” missing. . don’t look at me, I only lose glasses.)

Michael Fassbender in 'Shame'

“Uncomfortable,”  “Profound,” “By Mike Leigh” are not words that propel the well over-60-year-old Academy member into a screening. Do you think those same members liked what they saw, when they threw their For Your Consideration DVD of Shame on their home projection system?

Although it’s essentially a noir love story, how well did the unexpectedly violent moments of Drive play in that comfortable Bel Air living room?  What about the knife-edge walked in Young Adult by both Patton Oswalt and  Charlize Theron?  Their (virtual) shut-out in the nominations was a hint. Drive managed one technical nomination, but nothing for its music, let alone its actors, just ask Albert Brooks. On second thought…

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Notes From the Bottom of Every Office Pool

Let’s pick through this year’s full-on melodrama at the Academy Award nominations and see what seems to stand out.  Is this deep, inside stuff you can take to the betting window or the office pool?  Good heavens no. I’m habitually awful at that game.  This is a bemused look around by someone a little off to one side, and just crazy enough to take it all in.

You want depth, the internet now churns with writers whose depth of field in Oscar stats is stunning, although sometimes it seems that the Oscars are their only world.

For clarity, and a sense of proportion on the nominations (and all things Hollywood), I’d trust the New York Times team of Michael Cieply and Brooke Barnes who, among other challenges, make the virtually impenetrable Academy rule changes clear, and do it with a sheen of wit.  They’re non-geeky and nicely reliable.

As for me, it looks as though the Academy has tried to shake things up.  A little. So we have Demian Bichir on the Best Actors list for A Better Life, and Nick Nolte as a Best Supporting Actor in Warrior(Now to find those films!)  We have the fortitude of the Animation Committee who resisted The Adventures of Tin Tin in all its mirthlessness, and having been left off nearly every of those churning prognosticators’ lists, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy  came out of the cold.  Thrilled to see its 3 nominations, especially Gary Oldman’s first.

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They Shoulda Been a Contender: 2012 Oscar Snubs

'The Artist' - 10 nominations for a silent film in black-and-white with two French stars

By sheer numbers, the 84th Annual Academy Award Nominations seems to belong to Hugo, with 11 nominations. But given those are largely in the technical / craft categories, the success story this year is The Artist, a modern silent movie, shot in black and white, with two French stars practically unknown in the United States. With ten nominations, it should be the surprise off the season, except for the fact that this is simply the last lap in its run as the unlikeliest picture to win the hearts of awards season voters.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences moved the nominations announcements to January a couple of years ago, effectively shortening the “awards season,” but the unintended consequences have been to push the rest of the pretenders to Oscar glory into a free for all, everyone trying to predict or influence or simply contrast eventual Academy Award nominees. As a result, there are few real surprises by the time the Oscars are announced. It’s the final party in an absurdly overcrowded season of awards proms and I’m about partied out.

Plus there’s that new Academy sliding scale of Best Picture nominees. Bumped up from five to ten spots last year (not out of altruism but because indie pictures kept knocking the big audience-pleasing Hollywood movies out of contention), the number is now determined by the number of “You like me, you really, really like me!” number one votes a film received on the Academy ballots. This year, it resulted in nine nominations: an odd number for an odd year.

And yet… it’s the Oscars. They still matter. A nomination is indeed an honor (certainly more of an honor than the Golden Globes) and a snub is still something to get worked up over. And so here is out annual scorecard on Oscar’s slights and oversights: they shoulda been a contender.

Picture

There are nine nominees this year, but is more really better when Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Hollywood’s inevitable and inadequate 9/11 drama) and The Help (this year’s answer to The Blind Side?) and War Horse (Spielberg sentiment run amok) fill out those extra slots? This year swings so far in the other direction of Big Films with Important Messages Hammered Home with Insistent Direction that the indie films that spurred the expansion are all but ignored.

Two of the most glaring slights: Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt’s lost-in-the-desert frontier drama (did it play too early in 2011 for voters to remember its understated virtues?), and Take Shelter, a psychological drama about mental illness and end-of-the-world fears wrapped up in contemporary anxieties of economic survival.

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2010 Academy Awards: finished business

Last week I told a friend I wasn’t anticipating Oscar night all that much this year. Then I immediately emended that: No, I was anticipating Oscar night all too well. There was little room for doubt who or what was going to win, and the outlook wasn’t prepossessing.

As I wrote here several weeks ago, the triple crown victory of The King’s Speech in the Producers Guild, Directors Guild, and Screen Actors Guild awards gave clear indication where Hollywood’s heart lay and confirmed that film as the favorite to win the Academy Award for best picture. By showtime Sunday night, most partisans of the heretofore presumptive frontrunner, The Social Network, had conceded the field and pinned their hopes on a best-director victory for David (“99 takes!”) Fincher over The King’s man Tom Hooper.

On Sunday night, Fincher lost; Hooper won. And that moment, well into the third hour of the awards ceremony, was when a reasonably pleasant evening turned glum.

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